WASHINGTON – The Democratic presidential candidates courted liberal activists by disowning Republican-leaning policies espoused by others in their party and assailing President Bush's record on health care, the economy and terrorism.
"I think the Democratic Party has made a fundamental mistake in the last few years thinking we are going to win by being like the Republicans," former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) said. "The way to get elected in this country is not to be like the Republicans, it's to stand up against them and fight."
Several of the Democratic candidates appeared at the "Take Back America" conference sponsored by two progressive groups, the Campaign for America's Future (search) and the Institute for America's Future (search), a gathering where booths promoted environmentalism, feminism, vegetarianism, birth control and an end to the drug war.
A bit disconcerting for the many of the Democratic candidates was the first booth many of them saw — one manned by volunteers promoting an effort to draft Al Gore, the 2000 presidential candidate who has said he won't run in 2004.
Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (search) got some of the loudest applause by tapping into the crowd's lingering anger over the U.S.-led war against Iraq. She criticized the Bush administration for failing to capture terrorist leader Usama bin Laden "all the while pandering to fear to keep us at war until the elections are over."
"This administration is using our pain out of 9-11 as a smoke screen for an extreme political agenda," she said.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search)used his speech to announce his proposal to lower the cost of prescription drugs. He assailed Bush for not adequately addressing health care costs, corporate fraud or civil and equal rights.
"The president keeps telling us he wants a debate about values in 2004 — we are going to give him a debate about values," Edwards said. "Because this president's values are not the values of the American family."
Republican National Committee (search) spokesman Jim Dyke dismissed the criticism.
"The best that the Democrats have to put forward to Americans is to hope for the worst for America," he said. "As an election strategy, we're not sure that people will appreciate that."
Among those liberal voters attending the conference was actor-director Peter Horton, best known for his role on thirtysomething, who said he's been galvanized to get more involved in politics because he's so opposed to Bush's foreign policy, among other issues. He said he is considering whether to support Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry or Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.
"It's a balancing act between responding to a candidate's platform or whether they can beat President Bush in the election," he said. "I still don't feel like I know which can beat Bush yet."